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Stiller Waters Should Run Deeper

Ben Stiller is one of the most talented performers, writers and directors working today. Which is why it’s so hard for this viewer to be presented with “Along Came Polly,” a sometimes funny but mostly unpleasant romantic comedy, the benighted love child of the comic coarseness of “There’s Something About Mary” and the sexual anxiety-producing farce of “Meet the Parents.” Sure, it’s a hit, with an opening weekend gross of $37 million — which proves that Stiller (as well as his co-star, Jennifer Aniston) is eminently bankable — but the film leaves such a sour aftertaste, especially in its portrayal of Stiller’s character, that we are left feeling not just disheartened, but betrayed.

In the past decade and a half, Stiller has shown himself to be a sharp director (“The Cable Guy”), a witty writer (“Reality Bites”) and a savvy producer (“The Ben Stiller Show”). He has turned in finely tuned satirical performances (“Zoolander”) as well as powerful, dramatic ones (“Permanent Midnight”). If there was justice in Hollywood — let’s use our imaginations — Stiller would be considered a major artistic figure in the industry. But despite his multitude of accomplishments, he is widely viewed as a comic performer of increasingly limited range.

From “There’s Something About Mary” and “Meet the Parents” to “Along Came Polly,” Stiller is everybody’s favorite schlemiel. Reuben Feffer, his character in “Along Came Polly,” is the prototypical Stiller persona (and not coincidentally, the archetypal Hollywood Jewish male character). Reuben is an emotionally shut-down man who values extreme conformity and avoids all risks. His job as an insurance-risk analyst is emblematic of his life, and we see him avoiding subway grates (4% chance that they will collapse) and refusing to eat mixed nuts at a bar (67% of bar patrons don’t wash their hands after using the restroom). After his wife, Lisa (Debra Messing) leaves him on the first day of their honeymoon for her scuba diving instructor Claude (Hank Azaria) — ostensibly because she has last-minute jitters, though Claude’s large penis seems to figure in somehow as well — he begins to date Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston), an old friend from grade school. If Lisa is a controlling, domesticating nightmare, Polly is a free spirit who can’t remember appointments, has survived a series of messy relationships and whose apartment looks like a ramshackle secondhand store after a busy Saturday sale. “Along Came Polly” follows the conventions of the screwball romantic comedy, from “Bringing up Baby” through “Annie Hall”: The main characters get on each other’s nerves, runaway-bride Lisa returns and asks to be forgiven, Reuben is driven crazy by Polly’s madcap ways and she, in turn, runs away because she can’t deal. But in the end Reuben learns to express his emotions and take risks, Polly learns to be responsible and all is right with the world.

Written and directed by John Hamburg (co-writer of both “Zoolander” and “Meet the Parents”), “Along Came Polly” has all the earmarks of a routine, bland Hollywood comedy. But what distinguishes it — and makes it disagreeable — is its relentless portrayal of Reuben as not just a schlemiel, but as an arch-neurotic, hypochondriacal, diseased, emotional mess, all of which seems directly related to his Jewishness. We’ve seen these depictions before, from Eddie Cantor in “Whoopee!” through Jerry Lewis in everything, to Woody Allen in most of his films. But there is a major difference here. In “Whoopee!” and “Annie Hall,” the heroes’ neuroses and bodily infirmities are defining characteristics, but they are also essential to their charm. In “Along Came Polly,” Stiller’s bodily malfunctions are not charming (although they are put to comic use) but are instead symptomatic of deep emotional and psychological problems. Cantor and Allen were always proud of being who they were (and even used their quirky infirmities to their advantage), but Stiller seems to want and need to become someone else, to be “cured.”

“Along Came Polly” goes to (comic) lengths to portray Stiller’s dysfunctional body. A five-minute scene of him on the toilet (after Polly brings him to an unsanitary “ethnic” restaurant) is a replay of a scene in “There’s Something About Mary,” in which his penis is caught in his pants zipper. It creates a level of effective comic anxiety, but ultimately feels degrading — and not just to Reuben, but to Stiller as a performer. The film is so obsessed with Reuben’s contempt for his own body that it can only reflect this in his relationship to all of the other male characters in the film: He is nervous around Claude’s penis, upset by the intestinal eruptions of his boss Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin), repulsed by the hirsute body of a fellow basketball player, Dustin (Judah Friedlander), and disgusted by the inconvenient bodily functions of his best friend, the aging teen actor Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The end result is that “Along Came Polly” continually manifests distaste for the (often-Jewish) male body. And the fact that, at the film’s end, Reuben discovers a new sense of emancipation and walks naked on a Caribbean beach hardly makes up for what preceded it.

As popular and profitable as “Along Came Polly” may be, Stiller should be careful. In Hollywood, repetition (even profitable repetition) is the mother of creative stagnation. The temptation to repeat this sort of toilet-humor schlemiel routine must be great, but in doing so, Stiller will become trapped in an ugly ethnic joke of his own making.

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